Posted: March 13, 2008
Mount Holyoke College is known for its cultural and ethnic diversity, and nowhere is that more evident than in the range of languages spoken by the College faculty. At last count, faculty listed more than 50 languages they collectively speak (see below).
Professor of Asian studies Indira Peterson contributes significantly to that number: She speaks nine of the languages listed. As was the case for many of her peers in her native India, Peterson did not have a television as a child, and much of what she learned about the world around her came instead through her country's oral traditions--stories spoken in India's 15 major languages.
"Being from India gave me an advantage, because I was surrounded by languages, and people have always moved around a great deal in India," as did her own family, she said. Born in Delhi, she learned to speak Tamil, Hindi, and later Marathi; her grandfather taught her Sanskrit, in which she now holds a Ph.D. She then studied English in school, and by the time she was in fifth grade, she was "passionate about languages."
When her oceanographer father returned home from Russia carrying books by Dostoevsky, the two studied Russian together; she later tackled German and French. When she began reading the epic poetry of Homer while at Harvard, she learned classical Greek. Learning many languages was "a means to reading (various works) in the original literature," she noted. "It's been a passport for me."
India's "polyglot culture reflects my upbringing, and I see the world the same way," said Peterson, who concedes she has a gift for language. She has found her knowledge of so many languages creates a special bond when she travels abroad. "The moment I open my mouth, people know I'm one of them."
Peterson and her colleagues believe their versatility in language--as well as having students who come from nearly 70 countries--contributes significantly to the richness of education at MHC. According to economics professor Eva Paus, director of the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives, there are "benefits for all of us when there are many people around who know another language, whether that is the faculty or the students.
"Speaking another language means having insights into a culture and possibly a way of thinking that is different from your own. It gives you a more complex and enriching view of the world," she said. "That richness and complexity carry into the classroom, the teaching, the learning, the research. It enables many of us to use non-English resources in teaching and learning."
A professor of Asian studies and history, Jonathan Lipman speaks Mandarin Chinese and Japanese, as well as some Hebrew, French, and German; he also reads some Arabic, Korean, and Yiddish.
"Studying languages other than your own can bring a host of advantages," Lipman said. "Imagine the world of people you could talk to, books and periodicals and Web sites you could read, and cultures you could understand from the inside! Few things in life expand your mind faster and more effectively than discovering how lots of other people think and express themselves.
"Learning languages opens new vistas on the vast diversity of humankind, and this must be both humbling and ennobling," he added. "That MHC's faculty comes from all over the world and can use dozens of languages speaks volumes for our expanding horizons and global connections, as well as the multiple perspectives we can bring to our students."
Noted Peterson, "What's so nice about Mount Holyoke is that the world really is here."
The languages spoken by MHC faculty are:
13. Francoprovencal (Arpitan/Romand)
19. Greek (modern)
21. Haitian Creole
33. Pushto (Pashto)
47. Trinidad (Eng) Creole